PHOENIX - Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is savoring her legislative victories in the wake of a contentious session but looking to heal the fractures the battle over Medicaid expansion left in her own party.
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, the governor also promised to back Republicans who broke with conservative members of their own caucus to support Medicaid expansion and said she sees little chance that an effort by opponents to block the law through a referendum will be successful. They'll need to collect 86,405 valid signatures by Sept. 11 to put the law on hold until the November 2014 election.
"I think it's going to be very, very difficult in the length of time that they've got," Brewer said. "And it doesn't appear at least that they've got a very well organized operation that's going to be very viable."
Christine Bauserman of United Republican Alliance of Principled Conservatives, the group collecting signatures for the referendum, said 8,000 petitions have been distributed, adding "I don't know what she considers organization, but it's already there."
Brewer began the year by embracing Medicaid expansion, a key part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, and also said she wanted to overhaul the state's complex sales tax collection system, reform the Child Protective Services system and begin a school performance program that awards more money to schools that excel. She got nearly everything she wanted.
Medicaid was rammed through a divided Legislature during a special session she called this month that left conservatives embittered. Democrats were joined by 14 of 53 Republicans in the Legislature in voting to expand Medicaid to more than 300,000 Arizonans.
Those Republicans will likely be targeted in their 2014 primaries, but the governor said she'll be next to them.
"I will do whatever I can to be helpful to them, because I think they stood up, I think they exercised a great deal of courage under extreme difficult times, and some of them are relatively new to the process, which is tough," Brewer said. "And I think the public, I think the people of Arizona overwhelmingly support their action."
But Brewer also said she believes the party will reunite.
"I think that as we move and we make good policy for the state of Arizona there's always going to be disagreement," she said. "But I believe the Republican Party is built on a platform, I think we all philosophically agree on that platform and we will all come back together."
Long a champion of anti-abortion groups, she rebuffed an effort to add new restrictions onto the Medicaid expansion plan which were pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy. She said the group, led by Cathi Herrod, tried to "manipulate the system."
"It was unfortunate they tried to do that. I stood my ground, I believe it was the right thing to do and we'll move forward," Brewer said. "And again I think we'll all come back together because those of us that are pro-life, we are pro-life."
Herrod on Wednesday said she respects the governor and they have a longstanding relationship that will be healed.
"Our only intent in the Medicaid expansion debate was to propose ways to address the issue of additional taxpayer funding to go to Medicaid providers," Herrod said.
Brewer signed the Medicaid expansion bill last week, and on Tuesday signed the sales tax overhaul that will simplify one of the most complex systems in the nations for businesses to navigate.
"That was a huge deal and it's great for our state, something that I have been dealing with for 30 years, something that needed to be addressed a long time ago," she said. "And we kept doing little pieces here and there but it was never ever anything major. So by us achieving that this year it's a huge win for Arizona and certainly a huge win for our job creators, our business people out there."
She was able to get just a small amount of money in the $8.8 billion state budget for her school performance funding plan. But she vowed to use it to kick off an initiative that she believes will give schools incentives to excel.
"I think it was a beginning of what we're going to see and I'm hopeful that next year that we will address that issue," she said. "All the eyes across the country have been on us because we're the leaders in that arena. And so getting the money that we did get and the policy debated was a big win.
Brewer's second term ends in 2014, but she's left open the possibility that she might try to seek another term by challenging the state Constitution's two-term limit. She would have to argue her first term was only partial, and legal experts have said the constitution is clear that a partial term counts. She was secretary of state in 2009 when then-Gov. Janet Napolitano resigned to join the Obama administration.
"I haven't made my decision yet," she said. "I think the time is still there for me to determine that, what it is that I choose to do in the future. But I probably won't be making my decision till
maybe early fall."
Regardless, Brewer says she's enjoying the job and believes she is building a legacy.
"I have been blessed to have been the governor of the great state of Arizona, and I can look back now and know that it's been the worst times that I've seen Arizona go through," she said. "But I was able to lead the state I believe and I'm proud of the results we've been able to obtain. It's very rewarding."